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Characters: Background and Baggage
(originally published in Hearts Talk magazine in 1999)
We hear it all the time. From established writers and editors, the message comes loud and clear: the most important ingredient for a successful novel is good characterization. Characters should come alive and seem absolutely real to the reader.
So much hinges on effective characters. Without interesting, vibrant heroes and heroines, the most brilliant plots can fade to a pale glimmer of what we hoped to achieve. To get that elusive, but oh so vital emotional punch into our stories, we need characters so lifelike and sympathetic that the reader really cares what happens to them. And perhaps most importantly, effective conflict depends on compelling characters.
Most writers agree that conflicts and their resolutions are usually more powerful when they develop out of the hearts and minds of their characters. When this happens, one or both central characters has to change or grow in some way before barriers to the romance can be broken down and the true depth of feelings can be acknowledged.
So how do we achieve captivating characters? How do we come up with a hero and heroine who will appeal and touch the reader's ( and editor's) heart?
Obviously there has to be more to a hero than a handsome guy with a cute behind and impressive torso. And if our reader is to identify with the heroine and feel with her in moments of vulnerability or joy, she has to have a lot more than flowing auburn tresses.
The trick, of course, is for the writer to know the characters intimately, so that they are real people living in her (or his) head. We need to know all about their appearance, personality quirks, and mannerisms. It is also worth considering habits of speech so that, in dialogue, each character has an authentic voice.
However it is also very important to give quite a chunk of planning time to thinking about our characters' backgrounds - about their lives before they appear on page one of our manuscript. Just like real people, our characters are travelling on emotional journeys - journeys which started in their childhood. They need backgrounds - all kinds of things that have happened in their past and which affect their present behaviour.
We need to consider a whole range of possible past experiences, which could emerge as our characters' emotional baggage. These could include: their parents, siblings, embarrassing moments, happy memories of holidays at Gran's, bad memories and fears, favourite songs or food, suppressed ambitions and proud achievements. All these details might not be mentioned in the story, but you, the writer should know about them.
When you do have all these details about your characters in your head, they become more real to you and they become more real on the page. And by thinking about their backgrounds, you can provide interesting layers in your story. Once you start writing, you can gradually peel away these layers until you reveal what is at the heart of the conflict.
How and when you dream up these details for your story will vary. As far as I can see, there's no hard and fast rule. I know some writers like to prepare many pages of character profile before they start. In Valerie Parv's book, "The Art of RomanceWriting" she gives a helpful list of features to plan for your characters.
However, I heard recently that one top selling writer "doesn't know what her hero keeps in his socks drawer until she gets to the end of her first draft." She must be the kind of writer whose characters "reveal themselves" to her as she writes.
What's significant, is that during the writing process, she does get to know her hero intimately, and he's well established in her mind before she redrafts and polishes her stories.
I think most writers are, to borrow from Barbra Streisand, "people who like people". I've always been an inveterate snooper. I love listening to and observing other people and I've probably asked many more questions of the people I meet than is generally considered polite, but I need to know about people. I'm sure that somehow all the impressions we gather about our friends and acquaintances filter through and emerge into our subconscious thoughts and ultimately into our writing.
Of course, it's fun to pile all sorts of qualities onto our characters, but there also has to be some selectivity in deciding what experiences you give them and when to reveal these in your story. I'm sure well established writers have all sorts of ideas on how to do this. However, at this fledgling stage of my writing career, I find it safest to give one of my characters a problem or experience in the past which affects his or her current behaviour and this problem is usually at the heart of the plot's main conflict.
When I was writing "Outback Wife and Mother", I knew I wanted to write a story about a man falling head over heels in love with a woman whose career , he believed, prevented her from living with him on his outback cattle property.
I had to decide why he was so hung up about this, what had happened in his past to make him so wary? I decided that his own mother had given up her career to marry his father and live on his property. But his parents' marriage hadn't worked and his mother "abandoned" her family in favour of her career when Fletcher was only four. Fletcher had grown up believing that the only kind of woman who can put up with life in the harsh outback is one who has grown up in the bush and understands the conditions.
In my second story, "The Wedding Countdown", the hero Isaac had a very difficult childhood. As a result, he left home to become a street kid and was eventually fostered by the heroine's parents. He encountered fresh problems when he grew older and fell in love with their daughter. And so, once again, he ran away. All this happens long before the story starts. But in chapter one when Isaac and Tessa meet again four days before Tessa's wedding to someone else, there is a lot of background to provide many layers of tension between them.
Just in case I was developing too much of a pattern with troubled heroes, I gave the problem to the heroine in "Borrowed Bachelor". Maddy had a fiancé who dumped her for one of her friends.
These defining experiences in the characters' backgrounds can be from way back or recent times. As the creator, you get to choose. As you can see, in my first two stories the problem began when the heroes were quite young, but in my third book, the heroine had a rather nasty recent experience.
You also have to choose when to reveal these details. And I guess that's where crafting comes in. I am greatly indebted to the editor who suggested I write a prologue for "Outback Wife and Mother" describing when Fletcher's mother left him when he was a little boy. After I wrote it, I was amazed at how putting this information right up front helped the reader understand Fletcher's motivations. And, as an added bonus, the reader had inside information not available to the heroine, Ally, and so she immediately became a more sympathetic character.
However, this wouldn't work in every story. In "The Wedding Countdown", the main aim was to build up suspense and tension, so it was important to keep Isaac's reasons for leaving Tessa nine years earlier until very late in the story.
One thing to remember in romance
stories, is that the focus should be on the two central characters
- the hero and heroine. Beware of overdeveloping minor characters.
I have a bad habit of letting mine have too much to say and I
usually have to go back and "shut them up" later.
Like most aspects of writing, working out how to fill in the background for characters and just how to use those ideas, involves those familiar "i" words - inspiration, intuition and imagination. But the most telling factor for success comes from the inevitable "p" words - patience, perseverance and practice.
The final bonus is that these characters become like friends, who bring a whole new dimension to your life.